When I first was made to know, in no uncertain terms, that the earth and everything in it was vastly more sentient than I had ever imagined, I looked long and hard for writings that could shed more light on my experiences.  Especially I looked for stuff by modern Westerners.

Mostly I found little.  Most of us Westerners have not so immersed ourselves into natural processes and rhythms as to encounter this aspect of reality very often, and those who have rarely write books. David AbramJeremy Narby  and Tom Harmer  helped me significantly, but did little to reconnect this reality with the modern world around me.

So I was delighted when I discovered Derrick Jensen and his book  A Language Older then Words.  He  really captured what I was experiencing. 

Jensen had achieved this feat while fully recognizing the modern world’s intense psychopathology in denying this reality.  He could give clear expression to the enormous pain those of us who have been privileged to see this dimension of reality feel in our day to day lives as well as the sociopathic institutions that perpetuate it.  As my favorite environmental writer, Aldo Leopold, put it, we walk and live in a world of wounds, wounds that have gotten deeper and more festering since Leopold wrote.

Jensen has since produced a number of big books, and I have not read them all because when I started another, it seemed simply to recapitulate his denunciation of the modern world and our need to resist it.  So what follows may be out of date or based on inadequate knowledge of his analysis.  If so I’d appreciate someone setting me straight. (I figure that will be inevitable on this site…)

Jensen argues that civilization as such is the problem, especially cities, that things were far better when we lived as hunter gatherers, and that civilization is on an ultimate death spiral where the survivors will again be forced to live in the manner we evolved to live.  And we and the world will be the better for it.

I want to take issue with what I take to be one central aspect of his analysis as I understand it so far. 

I read Jensen as arguing that hunting and gathering was sustainable, and somehow we went astray when we began agriculture, and moved into cities and such.  (I agree that much about this process was bad for most people at the time and for a long time thereafter.  I have another issue to explore.)

Hunting and gathering (H&G) societies that have survived into modern times have been pushed to the outer limits of where people can live.  Even so, they often live well most of the time.  But for thousands of years they have been forced off of the easiest parts of the earth to live on by more numerous agricultural peoples.  So H&G peoples’ ability to live in harmony with their environment is both admirable and absolutely essential if they are to survive where they now live.  The Inuit, for example, do not live with a very big margin of error.

We know that many thousands of years ago H&G societies were all that existed.  We also know from studies of Indians of the Pacific Northwest, that when the area is ecologically rich enough, H&G cultures can develop permanent communities, wide differences in status, slavery, and apparently frequent if small wars.  In the Northwest these conditions were made possible by the return of salmon, continually enriching their environment beyond what the immediate area could support.

Some months ago I posted a discussion about Gobekli Tepe  where agriculture may have begun.  It was certainly close to where it did begin in the Middle East in both place and time.  The wonderful rock structures created there required a large population, and the evidence exists that permanent villages surrounded the area near these structures.  At the time the region was rich in animal life, as the carvings depict animals that have not been found there for millennia.  That ecological richness has been gone for a long time.

Such a large settled population living off the land would have gradually exerted enormous pressure on the ecosystem.  If they did not control their numbers, in time they would have degraded it.  If other regions nearby were also settled, the population could not have simply migrated to better hunting grounds. 

Gradually moving from a degraded hunting and gathering evironment, to increasing reliance of horticulture, then to agriculture, would have been a most rasonable solution for those facing this problem.  But the farther down that road a society traveled, the more difficult it would have been to go back.  The only agricutural societies I know of that returned to a H&G way of life were on the American plains.  The arrival of the horse opened up a whole new way of life ti Indians in an area that had been largely inaccessible to them.  Many left the fields to hunt on the open plains.

Ironically, the evidence appears to be that the plains tribes were beginning to overshoot the ecological capacity of their land by the time whites moved in an annihilated them.  They were already running out of winter grazing for their massive herds of horses.

Another example:
The archaeological evidence suggests that when melting glaciers flooded land between what is now England and France, people living there were forced to move into already settled areas.  The refugees could have been accommodated, but only by increasing pressure on the ecosystem leading again to agriculture.  Or wars could have broken out, with some defending their homes against others seeking new homes as rising waters drowned their former ones.  At least the latter seems to have happened, based on evidence that those killed by violence as the waters were rising increasingly included women and children. 

Therefore the evidence strongly indicates that necessity rather than choice led to agriculture, triggering the changes that Jensen describes so well.

If ecological disaster forces a return to H&G ways of life, the cycle will begin anew, in a yet more degraded environment. And maybe that is how it will be.  But then there is no truly sustainable way of life for critters such as us.

Jensen has written that cities are not ecologically sustainable on the land they occupy.  But neither are ant hills or bee hives.  That by itself is no argument against them.

What cities do that holds hope for us is to make it possible for people to learn quickly from one another, for ideas to circulate and be developed.  Much of this is noise of course, but not all.  Adaptation through culture is vastly more rapid than biological adaptation, except for some bacteria, viruses, and perhaps some very adaptable animals and plants, like flies, rats, and dandelions.  And adaptation speeds up as cultural connections are made, at least to a point.  

Jensen is right that adaptation can be stymied or perverted by big institutions that benefit from the status quo, as we see today with financial institutions that have caused our crisis but “are too big to fail’ so we must bail the crooks out.  He is right that resistance to these and other corporate psychopaths is necessary if we are to survive.  But the cities he criticizes seem to me absolutely essential as places of learning, genuine adaptation, and resistance if we are to have any future worth looking forward to.

Have I missed something?

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